Topic: Against the Odds by Jonnie Rutherford

Topic type:

A 2013 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.


Struggling ashore north of Mount Camel 37 passengers and 15 crew from Lifeboat No. 2 are stupefied with exhaustion as they stumble through sand and scrub to locate Houhora village and raise the alarm. A female passenger dies before reaching land.

Running into dense fog on the morning of November 9th 1902, passenger steamer Elingamite was in dangerous waters. Outward bound from Sydney to Auckland, the vessel had to pass Cape Reinga, North Cape and a group of islands known as the Three Kings or Manawa Islands. (To the Maori, Manawa-tawhi or Nga Motu Karaka.)

Surrounding the islands are reefs and rock stacks and vicious currents, tide rips and huge swells roll in from the Tasman Sea.

As the opaque blanket of mist enveloped the steamer Captain Ernest Atwood, master of the Elingamite, ordered reduced speed and posted look-outs. He made a slight change to the course from due east to the north to offset a current that he believed was setting to the south.

In actual fact that the current was setting to the north and this minor alteration would be the vessel's death knell.

A shout travelled to the bridge. “Breakers ahead!”

The first indication of trouble.

Suddenly towering cliffs materialised out of the gloom dead ahead of the bow. Instructions were issued for the engines to be thrust full astern, but it was too late. Ploughing straight on, she tore open on the rocks of West Island.

With the steamer sinking fast to her grave, the crew launch six lifeboats and two rafts, some in poor condition, all with little in the way of provisions. In their haste, Lifeboat No. 2 jams on its chocks and will not budge. As the sea claims the Elingamite a crewman risks his life to cut the falls and the lifeboat floats free.

The second boat soon becomes overcrowded after plucking the occupants of Lifeboat No. 6 from the waves after it capsizes on hitting wreckage as the vessel went down.


Crammed together with no room to lie down and cold and terrified, the complement of passengers and crew, including 4th Engineer J. Morrison, who had been in charge of Lifeboat No. 6, look to Chief Officer Burkitt to take command and pilot them to safety. Burkitt is facing a terrible situation. 52 lives, including his own, are in his hands. There is no prospect of landing on West Island. The seas pound the rocky coastline, smashing high up the sheer cliffs.

Covering a wide area where the South Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea converge, Burkitt considers it would be well nigh impossible to locate any one of the other twelve islands. As far as he knows, Great King is the only island where a boat might be able to beach, if weather and tide are favourable.

Another thought crosses his mind. The authorities will need to be notified of the disaster so a search for survivors can commence as soon as possible. After careful deliberation, and without navigational aids, not even a compass, Burkitt tells them all they will try to reach Houhora on the east coast, 240 miles north of Auckland.

Once there, they can report the tragedy.

The thick fog still swirls around them, reducing visibility to a few yards, as he exhorts the rowers to pull hard on the oars. This should bring them onto a course that will carry the boat away from the Three Kings, past Cape Reinga, around North Cape and down the east coast.

Guiding them safely around the northern tip of New Zealand will be the landfall light on Motuopao Island, about 2-3 miles south-west of Cape Reinga (known as the Cape Maria Van Diemen station after the nearby headland.)

But will they even reach that point?

 As darkness steals daylight away, the cold seeps into their bones. They huddle together to comfort one another, with morale at a low ebb. Burkitt is beginning to worry that he’d got it all wrong and they were rowing away from land, not towards it.

He decides to wait a little longer before making a change, which proves to be a wise decision. A few moments later flashes of light spear the sky.

With an enormous sense of relief Burkitt points them out, though many are now too weak to fully digest their significance. Morrison, wedged next to his officer, does and pats him on the back, quietly elated.

But there is still a long way to go.

The lack of food and water, the strain of navigating in the extreme conditions where it was hard at times even to pick out the rowers in the bow and the mental effort required to bolster everyone up, particularly those on the oars, is beginning to take its toll. So Burkitt is pleased to have the support of another crewman.

Using the intermittent flashes of light as beacons, they pass beneath Cape Reinga as the shrouds of mist at last disperse. After being blanketed in the damply depressing, pewter duvet for hours after rowing away from the wreck the unfolding, clear and diamond-studded firmament brings welcome relief.

In the stillness, an atmosphere of tranquillity spreads over the occupants with the soporific swish of the waves as they expend energy on the shoreline and the lazy slop-slop-slop of the oars. Burkitt and Morrison feel they can briefly relax. They take turns to snatch forty winks.

After hugging the coastline, the boat veers offshore to round North Cape as the voyage enters its second day. Overnight a woman passenger has passed away and is gently lowered into the ocean.

A grim reminder of how tenuous is their hold on life.

Dawn breaks and brings with it warmth to shivering bodies; gives hope to Burkitt. In the distance, straining his eyes, he can see the sun's rays beaming onto the dunes of a beach, the sand the colour of ripe apricots.

The boat rocks gently on the placid water, oars hanging idle in the rowlocks, as it is carried along by the current. The survivors, devoid of energy, are incapable of further effort. Heads slump onto chests. Hands, unaccustomed to rowing, are raw and bleeding from blisters; eyes red and swollen from crying.

Feelings of doubt pervade the boat.

Nudging Morrison, Burkitt takes up an oar and together they pull southwards along the east coast, hoping this may give others the incentive to do the same. They know they will tire quickly, but must keep the boat moving faster than the current taking them away. Another day out here will be disastrous.

Noticing their effort two men drag themselves out of their apathy and take up another pair of oars.

Imperceptibly the apricot dunes pass astern and when Burkitt dares to look up he spies, in the distance - and if his memory isn’t playing tricks - the prominent headland that is Mount Camel.

On being told the news that their destination is in sight, there are overwhelming sighs of relief and those in the boat encourage one another to hang on; that it won't be much longer before their ordeal is over. Totally spent, Chief Officer Burkitt collapses and Morrison drags him off the oar. Someone else needs to step up and row the last short stretch.

As the sun rises to its zenith Burkitt makes his final decision, choosing to beach the boat on a narrow area of sand slightly north of Mount Camel, which stands at the entrance to Houhora harbour.

Just over twenty-four hours after the sinking, the survivors in Lifeboat No. 2 tumbled onto land and safety, to notify the authorities of the loss of the Elingamite.



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Against the Odds by Jonnie Rutherford